Ultrarunning Skill #3: Patience
[Author’s Note: This is the third in a series of five columns on meta-cognitive skills and their role in running, education, and life. Here is article article #1, on persistence, and article #2, on resilience. My introductory piece two weeks ago invited you to share your stories, too. You can still share your thoughts by commenting on this article or by emailing me [email protected].]
In a sport where the ultimate goal is typically to get from the starting line to the finish line as quickly as possible, it might seem counter-intuitive to suggest that one of the key skills in mastering such an activity is patience. However, after two decades in the sport, I have come to the distinct conclusion that patience is critically important for success in ultrarunning and particularly important for runners seeking longevity.
Certainly, there are times when a sense of urgency is important and the ability to think on your feet, adapt to changing circumstances, and make split-second decisions can determine how successful one is in a given event. However, from my view, being patient far outweighs any of that. To make my point, I will highlight three aspects of ultrarunning that we all experience and all require patience: training, recovery, and racing.
I remember back to the late-‘80s when I first started running. It seemed like with each run I got faster, more efficient, and more joyful. I quickly started signing up for 5ks, 10ks, half-marathons, and the like and seemed to enjoy one PR after another. Inevitably, after a move west and a series of significant life events, I discovered trail running and ultramarathons. At first I was humbled and awed by the sheer tenacity of these rugged trail runners. In my circumstance, these were mostly old desert rats who seemed intent on going out weekend after weekend with no other goal than to spend hours in the mountains. It was alluring and tantalizing to me and I quickly made the transition to ultras.
As with my progression in road racing, I quickly got faster, more efficient, and more joyful. Then, about the time of my first 100-mile race, the 2000 Angeles Crest 100, I hit a plateau. I stopped getting faster. I felt like I had reached my limit. At that point, on the advice of my running mentor, Tom Nielsen, a switch went off and I realized that the immediate gratification days were over and now, in order to find continued success, I must learn patience. In the subsequent three years, I learned the importance of rest, periodization in training, and, for lack of any better way of putting it, the importance of letting the training come to me.
It turned out that in my decade long build-up, I had been in a cycle of more, better, faster and was never allowing myself to just revel in the training and, in the wise words of veteran ultrarunner Tim Fitzpatrick, I never allowed the training to just “sink in.” Once I understood the need to do that and found a way to integrate a patient approach with my training, I embarked on a seven-year joy ride of training and racing between 2004 and 2011 that only ended when injury got the better of me.
In 2011, about two months after Western States, I became crippled with a severe case of plantar fasciitis. I had, of course, heard all the horror stories about this injury, but had never succumbed to it myself. In the fall of 2011 I was debilitated by it. Impatiently, I tried all the tricks to heal myself and, as is often the case, ultimately came back from it three months later only to develop another far more severe injury as a result of trying to return to running too quickly. So, five months after limping home from a run with PF in my right foot, I was laying on the operating table to have the meniscus in my left knee scoped.
I thought that injury would get me back into the groove of practicing patience. Certainly, a torn meniscus would require significant recovery and a patient return to running. One would think. But, not me, I still thought I had time to get healed up in time for Western States 2012. Even though all my friends and family were telling me I was stupid to even try, I was determined. Until, of course, I limped back to my car 400 meters into a training run on the Western States course over Memorial Day Weekend. At that moment, finally, I accepted the fact that nothing other than a fully patient recovery plan would do.
When I arrived home from Auburn in May, 2012, I circled June 29, 2013 on my calendar, took six weeks completely off from running, and charted the slow, gradual return to form that would be required. If I was going to actually practice what I preached about running and recovery, now was the time. Finally, by New Year’s Day 2013, I felt like a runner again and began my slow, steady preparation for the 2013 Western States.
I went into the 2013 Western States with low expectations of myself. Sure, I wanted to run well and I certainly wanted to finish but, in contrast to many years previously, I was wary of making any bold predictions about my place or setting any audacious goals. I was, however, quietly committed to running a patient race and, with any luck, I wanted to pace myself well enough to have the race come to me.
By the time I got to Foresthill (mile 62), I felt like I had achieved the first part of that goal. Running up Bath Road with my son, Logan, I think I was in something like 35th place. Logan looked and me and said, “You look like you still have some bullets left in that holster.” I didn’t realize it at the time but I actually felt good. I stayed patient on the descent to the river on Cal Street and along with Erik Skaden, a guy who certainly knows a thing or two about patience, we started passing people, one every couple of minutes. By the time we got to ALT (mile 85), we were skimming the top 20. Darn, I thought, this patience is paying off.
At the Highway 49 crossing with just under seven miles to go, I finally started to think about my place (it was 17th) and wondering if I had any chance of cracking the top 10. With my eager 13-year old son by my side I, for the first time all day, got impatient. And, just like that, on this day, it felt wrong! By No Hands Bridge, I settled into a more patient, joyful space, started chatting with Logan and savored those last three miles like I never had before. Reflecting back on it now, I can safely say that 2013 was my most enjoyable Western States run. While I have certainly run faster and placed higher, I have never felt as calm, as peaceful, and as centered as I did on that day. I believe it was my patient approach that gave me that gift.
And so, as I embark on what will be my last Western States training cycle, I am once again committed to a patient approach. I believe that patience, along with persistence, resilience, courage, and grit, can get me to the starting line and to the finish line in ways that will not only enrich my running but, more importantly, enrich my life.
Here are a few more thoughts on patience from the 2013 Western States Veteran’s Panel beginning at 53:10:
AJW’s Beer of the Week
This week’s Beer of the Week comes from Goose Island in Chicago, Illinois. Each winter, Goose Island releases a limited edition bourbon barrel stout they call Bourbon County Brand Stout. I managed to get my hands on a couple of bottles earlier this week and I must say it is incredible. Evidently, as one of the first breweries to make a bourbon barrel stout, Goose Island has perfected the variety with this year’s offering. The flavor is extraordinarily complex, the mouth feel is warm and smooth, and the body is nothing short of incredible. Of course, you want to be careful with this one because at 14.2% ABV, it’s a goose that bites!
[Editor’s Note: If AJW hadn’t twice previously featured Pliny the Elder, I’d be hijacking this spot. Alas, I hope to hoist a pair of four-day old Pliny’s with AJW within hours of this article going live. – Bryon]
Call for Comments (from Meghan)
- Even though you are a part of sport that requires much patience to see a finish line through, do you ever catch yourself being impatient with your own training, recovery, or racing?
- How about in life? What important lessons have you learned in being patient in your daily life?
- And, when, if ever, in our sport is a lack of patience at least a short-term benefit?